Skin lightening lotions, creams and serums can be divided into two categories: those that are highly toxic, and those that are safe. Fortunately the dividing line is usually pretty clear, and it is easy to identify the skin lightening ingredients you should avoid.
Hydroquinone is known to produce serious side effects when used over a long period of time. The Story of Cosmetics highlights this ingredient as one of the most toxic ingredients on the market. It is reported to increase the risk of developing leukemia, liver cancer, skin irritation, irreversible hyperpigmentation (exogenous ochronosis) * and reproductive damage. Hydroquinone photosensitizes the skin, making it susceptible to skin cancer. It is completely banned for use in cosmetics in Europe and Japan, and the FDA is considering its ban in the US. *Ochronosis occurs when the pigment drops into the dermis, creating bluish-black patches around the mouth or eyes that are almost impossible to remove.
Used to suppress inflammation associated with skin conditions like eczema, dermatitis and psoriasis, steroid creams contain powerful ingredients like Clobetasol Propionate, Fluocinolone Acetonide or Betamethasone Dipropionate. One of steroid’s side effects is skin lightening, but prolonged use can lead to skin problems such as steroid rosacea and thinning of the epidermis.
The Vitamin A derivative found in Retin A, Avita and Renova, tretinoin increases cellular turnover rate, thus eliminating pigment already pooled in the epidermis. Overuse can result in dry, thinner skin. Sensitive skin types can also experience redness, scaling, itching and burning. Thinner skin can increase susceptibility to deleterious effects of UV exposure.
The Alpha hydroxy acid expedites cellular exfoliation, and serves the same purpose as tretinoin described above. Again, the long term side effect of greater UV susceptibility obviates the short term skin lightening effect.
If your skin has a tendency to develop hyperpigmentation it is also a good idea to shun products containing alcohol, which can accelerate the problem.